Harvard historian James Kloppenberg’s new book, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes and the American Political Tradition, is getting attention. According to the New York Times, Kloppenberg “sees Mr. Obama as a kind of philosopher president,” a “true intellectual.”
James Taranto remarks that Kloppenberg portrays Obama as a kind of “secret-agent philosopher.” For political reasons Obama would be obliged to play down his marvelous intelllect, Kloppenberg commented to the Times, which (in Taranto’s words) “helpfully explains that ‘intellectual’ is ‘a word that is frequently considered an epithet among populists with a robust suspicion of Ivy League elites.’”
In other words, as Kloppenberg sees it, Obama must hide his intellect under a bushel to foil the hordes of American simpletons (think tea partiers).
Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University, lapped up Kloppenberg’s perspective: ”The way he traced Obama’s intellectual influences [at an academic conference] was fascinating for us, given that Obama’s academic background seems so similar to ours.”
Taranto calls Hartman’s remark about Obama’s “academic background” telling. In the process, he skewers both the academic world and the president:
Professors imagine Obama is one of them because he shares their attitudes: their politically correct opinions, their condescending view of ordinary Americans, their belief in their own authority as an intellectual elite. He is the ideal product of the homogeneous world of contemporary academia. In his importance, they see a reflection of their self-importance.
Occam’s razor suggests that Obama is a mere conformist–someone who absorbed every left-wing platitude he encountered in college and never seems to have seriously questioned any of them. Kloppenberg characterizes Obama as a skeptic, not a true believer. We’re not sure he has an active enough mind to be either one.